Notable local historical women

Michael Raffety

April 23, 2010

Women’s History Month was last month, so I’m a little behind the curve on this column, but it is never too late to highlight my favorite women in El Dorado County history. My top favorites worked at the Mountain Democrat.

Bine V. Ingham and Mollie Carpenter broke the mold for editors and publishers. They were ahead of their time in having those responsibilities and holding those positions. Back then the Democrat was a weekly.

Bine Ingham worked for the Mountain Democrat 41 years, a record likely never to be broken.

A native of Kankakee, Ill. She was raised in Coloma, from where she rode a horse into town to attend the Placerville Academy.

Though she only lived to be 65, her life straddled two epochs. Born in 1856, she grew up in the horse and buggy era and survived into the automotive era and beginning of the Jazz Age.

Her first job was learning telegraphy at the Coloma telegraph office. She then came to work for W.A. Selkirk and learned typesetting at the Mountain Democrat when she was 24.

Selkirk took over ownership in 1872. She was also associated with Selkirk in publishing the Observer-Democrat, which in 1889 was merged with the Mountain Democrat. In 1889 Ingham was the only person listed as publisher of the Mountain Democrat. That continued until 1894 when Galusha J. Carpenter bought the paper along with Judge G.E. Williams, who was not listed on the masthead.

Ingham became Carpenter’s business manager, a position she retained until her death.

G.J.’s daughter, Mollie Carpenter, became sole owner of the Democrat in 1902. By 1910 Bine bought a half interest and the two gals were co-publishers.

They were well liked and known around town for their singing at events, weddings and funerals. It seemed obvious they were good friends. When Bine died Mollie put her picture on the front page with a poem, the one and only poem that will ever appear in the Mountain Democrat. The photo has always been my favorite. It seemed wonderfully casual and out of character for newspaper style at the time, showing her relaxing in a comfortable chair on her front porch with her feet propped up. She died April 24, 1921 — 89 years ago Saturday. The headline said simply “30,” which until the advent of computers was used to indicate the end of the story.

A year after Bine died Mollie sold the paper to Clarence Barker, who was listed as publisher beginning with the June 10, 1922, paper. He took over an operation that included a Linotype machine Mollie had bought just six months before.

The headline read, “Democrat Modernizes Plant; Installation of Linotype Places office in Up-to-Now Class.”

It was a Quick Channel Model 5 Merganthaler Linotype. The accompanying article called it “a mechanical marvel” whose “Installation is a testimonial to the prosperity of Placerville.”

Another Democrat woman that was well liked here and around town was Virginia Briggs. She worked here 30 years, having started in 1968. her community involvement included the Marshall Hospital board and the Juvenile Justice Commission. The staff loved her poolside parties and her fabulous guacamole dip. She could type faster than the computer almost. She had to have a typing speed of somewhere between 100 and 150 words per minute and she was accurate. She typed all our legal ads, a challenging task. Matie Barker started the Heard Over the Back Fence column in the 1950s. After the Barkers sold the paper in 1964 the column gradually diminished over time, eventually becoming a haphazard catchall .

What the column lacked by that time was one person who was responsible for it. When I knew I was going to be editor I lined up Virginia Briggs to take over the column. She started with my first issue as editor and continued it for 12 years until 1998. She died not long afterward. Picking up the baton has been Bob Billingsley, who has been doing the column for 12 years now. From a typing whiz to the only columnist in America who writes his column with a pen, Bob’s columnist teammate is his wife, Monika, who types it and e-mails it for him.

Another woman of historical note is Emigrant Jane. All I know is what the plaque (City Historical Site No. 2) on the old city hall says: “She drove a band of horses across the plains and from the proceeds of their sale she erected this building in 1861.” That building went up right next to the Confidence Hall, built one year earlier for the Confidence Fire Engine Co. Emigrant Jane’s building was not only part of City Hall, but when I came to town the downstairs was the Police Department. The night shift officer could look out the picture window and keep an eye on Main Street and see who was parking and going into the bars.

The City Council met upstairs in Confidence Hall with a big window behind the council members so the audience could look out on some decent scenery instead of a curtain backdrop and fluorescent lighting.

My all-time favorite woman of history, though is Elizabeth Fleischmann. She was born in Placerville in 1896, 10 years after Bine Ingham came to work for the Mountain Democrat. Elizabeth moved to San Francisco where she was on the cutting edge of medical science. I learned about her in 1990 when I visited the Exploratorium and saw a little blurb about her. Three years ago, our then-staff writer Wendy Schultz managed to track down more about her, including photographs.

You could call Elizabeth Fleischmann the Madam Curie of X-rays. She started the first commercial X-ray lab in California in 1896, the same year Conrad Roentgen announced the discovery of X-ray, and by 1900 an article in the San Francisco Chronicle had spread the word about the benefits of her work with X-rays.

Her X-rays helped doctors locate unseen bullet and shell fragments in wounded Spanish American War veterans.

“We have never failed to go straight to the foreign body embedded in the human anatomy which is shown by her radiographs…” said one surgeon.

The same year her work was praised in the San Francisco Chronicle she married Israel J. Aschheim. It was a short marriage. She died five years later.

In the meantime she lost an arm. In the early days the only way to determine proper exposure with the crude X-ray machines and film was to take an X-ray picture of her hand. The X-ray exposure eventually killed her. Her experimentation and the innovation of using X-ray photographs to find shrapnel helped to save lives and pioneer the use of the new phenomenon in medicine.

Which is why the Buster Brown Shoe stores stopped taking “fluorescent” photos of a shoe buyer’s feet.

Her X-rays were so impressive that the U.S. surgeon general came out to see her studio and meet her. Two modern books take note of her work. They are Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the 20th Century by Bettyann H. Kevles, and Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers and Tailfins by John H. Leinhard IV.

Medical X-rays have been so refined and carefully controlled since Elizabeth Fleischmann’s groundbreaking work that started a new era in medical diagnosis. Now small little negatives can be used to X-ray your teeth. Fleischmann’s medical epiphany is the foundation from which come sophisticated CAT scans (computed axial photography). From this foundation also comes nuclear medicine imaging, PET scans (positron emission tomography), and the non-X-ray, non-nuclear MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

I was fortunate enough to get the first MRI when Marshall Medical opened its MRI department in Cameron Park in 1993. They invited me to write a first-person account about the experience. Since that time they replaced the 22,000-pound magnet in 2004 with a smaller magnet, better software and a larger diameter, shorter length and less claustrophobic tube.

Elizabeth Fleischmann’s gravestone reads, “I think I did some good in this world.”

Her contribution to medicine is incomparable. That’s why she is my favorite Placerville woman of history.

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